Today’s short story was guest written by Teowi, author of Gods are Watching!
A Story for Three
“Here’s a good story,” Knell had said all of a sudden. “Three people are walking in a desert, and one of them falls into quicksand.”
Erik cut him off immediately. “Don’t jinx us,” he said. His face was already bathed in sweat from the hot air. The pair had told her they had been out in the sands for half an hour, and already they looked to be melting from the heat.
“No, I want to hear it,” Loren told them. “Does it have a happy ending?” She was dragging the end of her staff along the ground, leaving a trail behind them that was quickly swept off by the wind. The desert in front of them drew a rugged trail across the horizon, while at their backs the last outpost they passed grew into a dark figure in the distance. From above, they must have looked like three small specks in the vast sand.
“Well, a good story has a good ending,” Knell said smartly.
“Does it?” Erik said.
He continued. “Three people walk in a desert, and one of them falls into quicksand. He doesn’t know how to escape, so he struggles and starts to sink fast. Behind him, his third companion says to his second, “He’s going to die at this rate. Quick, go in there and show him how it’s done.” So the second guy goes in the quicksand and lies on his back and floats, and quickly the first follows his example.”
She knew how it would end. “And the third person pulls them both out,” she finished.
He gave a grin. “No. The third guy steps on their bodies and crosses the quicksand by himself. His own weight pushes them under, and they both suffocate.”
“That’s horrible,” she said. “Why would he do that?”
“I don’t know. Why would three people walk in the desert?” He was hinting at their own excursion.
Erik’s voice was hard. “Nothing like that will happen to us. We three need each other if we want to kill the Sandworm—turning to murder will make us nothing better than the monster itself.”
Calling it a monster was no exaggeration. The beast had the length of a trail of camels in the desert, winding the hills in and out of sight, and the giant black mouth of a cavern. Loren knew because it had raided her town the week before, sweeping up people on the streets like morsels of food. It ate without satiety, swallowing more than it had the room and pushing acid-slobbered people from its behind, tearing down house walls like cheap paper. It had ripped her parents right out of her arms.
Knell had been different, with no family in town, but Erik must have felt the same vengeance burn. Five days ago his older brother had set out to slay the Sandworm, and there had been no sight of him since. The only hope for him was that the beast digested slowly.
He turned to her. “You hold a staff, but can you use any magic?” He had the sword at his side, and Knell his set of daggers. Loren had met them with only her staff and pouch of water. They had left their mounts tied at the outpost since the heavy lumbering of camels were more likely to bestir the Sandworm if it lay underneath in the ground.
“Minor buffs,” she answered. Before either of their eyes could light up, she added, “But only on myself.”
“Better than nothing,” Knell offered.
“Better than most,” Erik said. “Peasants like us are well off able to light a few candles. We’ll find better luck swinging iron than throwing a fireball.” He gave a pause, then spoke in a softer voice, but with the same surety. “If there was anyone talented in magic, it was my brother.”
“Then he would have put up a good fight,” Knell assured him. “And ours will be all the easier thanks to him.”
He only turned, the thought of the loss still bitter.
Loren figured she should tell them now. “Perhaps we won’t have to fight,” she said quietly.
“Well, the thing won’t die from a drop-kick,” Knell said, finding some humor in the idea. Erik sent him a warning look.
“No.” She put a hand over her water pouch, still heavy and somewhat cool under her cloak. “I have something that can kill it in one blow.”
He didn’t believe her. “The Sandworm is gigantic,” he reminded them. “Nothing like the stray beasts you find in the wild. Remember the old nursing stories, the ancient demon kings that sent forth waves and waves of abominations each season?”
Now it was Knell who doubted him. “All dead, and the kings sealed.”
“All of them?” He gave him a careful look. “The thousands upon thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands?”
He shrugged. “A few here and there, maybe…But Vulcan keeps watch, as do the other deities. They wouldn’t dare crawl out of whichever dank hole they fled into.”
His words were true—so long as the dragon-gods kept watch. But word had been that the fire deity had flown East some six months ago, one since guards and royal knights all over the realm had been pooled to the East for some urgent task. Six months was a long absence for the boisterous, Human-loving dragon, and for the creatures in dark holes, perhaps a window of opportunity…
She shook her head from such frightening thoughts. “What I have will be able to kill it—no, more than able.” She opened the cap of the pouch and showed them.
They peered in. Submerged in the water, a prick of light shone like a fiery star in the dead of darkness.
“Gods,” Knell breathed.
“That must have cost a fortune,” Erik said, a shadow over his brow. “I’ve never seen a crystal shine so clear.”
Loren closed the lid. “My parents were crystal merchants,” she explained. “I took it from our deepest safe.”
“Even so,” he pressed, “something like that must have been a family treasure.”
“And our cause is worth every copper. Not like there was anyone to stop me.” She clasped her hands around her staff and held it close to herself, ducking her head under her thin cloak. It kept the fire crystal just cool enough, bathed in the water, to prevent an accidental explosion.
“The blast from that thing will be huge,” Knell said. “How are we going to use it and get out alive? I doubt throwing distance will make it.”
“Maybe…maybe we’ll have it swallow the crystal?” she asked.
The frown only deepened on Erik’s face. The victims most recently swallowed would be at the front end, and the blast would kill them all. The three of them knew it. “It won’t open its mouth for something so tiny. We’ll stick it with blades first and leave the crystal as a last resort. If we slit it open…” He didn’t finish the thought. His brother was a skilled fire mage, and even he had fallen against the Sandworm. What could two freelancers and a merchant girl accomplish? They needed the firepower, which meant a sacrifice.
Loren broke the tension. “We’re nearly there,” she told them. “This is the last place I saw the Worm, and it couldn’t have crawled far still so bloated.”
“Then let’s rest,” Knell suggested. “And make a plan.”
They found shade under a hill of sand. For all the talking, joking and jibing Knell liked to give as they travelled, he became quiet when they sat, keeping to himself and his daggers. When he thought no one was watching, the carefree expression slid off his face like a mask, a wary one taking its place.
Loren found herself beside Erik, his face dark as he thought. She knew he was troubled. She drew her knees to her chest, counted to ten, and said, “I’m sorry about your brother.”
“Don’t be,” he replied, staring down at the sand. “You lost more than I did.”
“Are you angry?” she asked.
His hand rested over the hilt of his sword. “Out for blood…But so are you.” He looked at her. “You’re a merchant’s girl, and yet you’re out here, same as the rest of us. Your anger must out-burn the desert sun.” Unlike Knell, there was no smile on his face to be found.
She shook her head. “I’m not angry. I won’t get angry at a worm for just wanting to eat.” Her chin tucked under the clasp of the cloak, she held her staff in one hand and with the other drew a squiggle into the warm ground, thinking about how big it had been, how many it could swallow. “I don’t think people or animals should be faulted for being selfish or greedy, contemptuous or desperate. It’s in our nature.”
He seemed surprised. “Not at all?”
“Then what about the story?” Erik asked. “You didn’t like the ending. The third guy didn’t kill the other two to save his own ass; maybe he stepped on them just to save time from walking around the sandpit. Wasn’t that selfish and contemptuous?”
Loren looked up. “But that was just a story. It was made-up.”
“And the difference being?”
She thought about it, then spoke honestly, which had become a rare thing. “Well…I think that stories should be happy. I want to hear about happy endings made by good people. I want everyone to live.”
“So you want happy thoughts,” he said. “And what goes to the bad people?”
She smiled quietly. “You’ll find it hard to find a bad person by my standards.”
He turned and barked a laugh. Even if it was spurred from her strange opinion, her heart soared at the sound. Laughter was something she hadn’t heard in a long time; now it seemed to her as strange and rare as a unicorn.
“What will we do when we find the Sandworm?” she asked. “Will you and Knell think up a strategy?”
Erik’s face sobered. “We will think of something. I doubt two people hacking and slashing will do much. Maybe we can find a weak spot and hit it there.”
She doubted such a thing would be found so easily. “What about me? I want to do something too, even if you won’t use the crystal.”
He looked her up and down. “Your staff?”
“I can swing it hard, but it won’t cut like a blade can.”
“I only have this one sword, and I’m not sure how fast you could pick up the dagger…” he said. Her face fell. “I’m sorry. Your crystal would out-provide both of us, but I just don’t want to resort to it first. My brother is in there.”
My parents, too, she added inside her head. “Well, teach me to swing it and grip it,” Loren suggested. “And if you get hurt midway through the battle, I can pick up for you.”
She watched him consider the proposal. No doubt it seemed far-fetched, having her fit for a sword in not even a half-hour, but she knew Erik felt bad about the crystal and wanted to humor her somehow. “Fine,” he agreed.
They stood. He handed the weapon to her, watching the stance and grip that she took.
“That’s close. Shift your foot back like that—there you go. Don’t hold your arms too straight, and don’t lock them. And your fingers…” He adjusted them on the hilt. “That’s good. Try a practice swing.”
She swung, but it fell clumsily when something gave. She stumbled.
“What’s wrong with your arm?” he asked.
“Injury.” She raised the blade again. “I can still fight.”
Erik stepped forward. “Let me see.” He slid up the sleeve, frowning at the bandages that wrapped from wrist to elbow. “Must be a long gash. Did a beast attack you?”
She nodded. “But it’s not as bad as it seems.”
She might as well have not said a thing; he frowned for a moment, then dropped her sleeve. “I can’t let you exert yourself like this. Bad or not, the wound is half your arm. You shouldn’t be fighting.”
Argument rose in her, but she bit her tongue to quell the panic. “I won’t go in fighting,” she said. “But if you fall, better me than Knell to pick you up—or at least your sword.”
It wasn’t enough to convince him. She closed her eyes. Every time they staggered like this, faltered in their plans, she thought of her parents dissolving in that thick acid in the dark and wanted to cry because she knew they were running out of time.
When Loren looked up, her eyes were wet with tears. “I told you I want to help. Believe in me. I want to save them, too. As much as you want to save your brother.”
“I know,” he said quietly.
“Do you really think we’re all going to get out alive?” she asked.
Erik didn’t need to answer. Maybe he was thinking of his own kin, dissolving in that same long stomach. Were they conscious in there?
“Even I know better.” She handed the sword back and sniffled, saying, “Here. You’ll need this.” Then she returned to the spot of shade under the mound and wiped her tears, letting him leave and talk to Knell. They glanced at her once, but she didn’t move. She laid her head on her knees and thought of her broken home.
Loren didn’t know how much time had passed, but the shift of shoes in sand jolted her from her half-sleep. Erik was standing in front of her, a hand offered out, and she took it and rose.
“Grab your staff. You’ll be needing it.” Knell was beside him as well.
“You mean…?” she began.
His clasp was firm. The low sunlight brought out the strands of copper and red in his hair, like a wreath of fire lit across the top. “We’re going in together. Knell and I talked, and I realized that it was foolish to try to leave you out. You’re the one that brought us here. We need to stick as a group, not tear ourselves apart before the enemy’s even shown up.”
“We’ll use the crystal, too,” Knell told her. “Even if it means the sacrifice. We won’t let the demon eat anyone else. When it opens its mouth to try to swallow one of us, throw it in. Then we’ll run.”
Her eyes were wide in disbelief. “You really decided this?”
“Not because I cried, right? Not because you felt bad for me?”
“Not for something like that,” he said.
Both her hands grabbed his own. “Then why?” she asked.
Erik looked sheepish. “You told me to believe in you,” he said. Then his face fell. “Why are you crying again?”
Loren ducked her head. She’d stared at him for so long that the tears had burned out of her eyes, but to them, it would have looked genuine. “I’m…I’m just happy,” she answered. “I’m happy you listened.” It was not a lie. She wiped her eyes and grabbed her staff, straightening as she faced them. The smile came to her easily, set as rock. “Come on. We have a worm to kill.”
The three of them took position. She raised her staff and slammed it down, sending out a great burst of sand that fell back in a coarse and blinding rain. With magic in her arms, she was as strong as Knell or Erik. The Sandworm would come soon, because it always heard.
The rumble came, deep and slowly. “It’s going to sprout from here,” she warned. “Let’s run back.” The three of them retreated, slipping behind the mounds of sand where they had taken their rest. They waited, but not even for a moment.
It was as if a colossal tower had exploded from the ground and rammed the sky. The ground seemed to break and sway. A great gust of wind blew out, sending forth a storm of grit, and they all recoiled in their hiding places.
Loren opened her eyes, going into a kneel, and she saw that Erik was frozen beside her. “What are you waiting for?” she asked above the howl of the wind. “Are you scared of death now? Give me your sword!” She grabbed it from him, his fingers pliable from fear.
The blast had only existed for a mere moment, but she knew that to every fresh set of eyes it was a single, frightening eternity. It had been the same with her. When the sand settled again, the sky cleared, behind them the Sandworm lay blind and confused.
He hardly risked a glance back. “It’s huge.”
The sword was in her hands. She was silent.
“If my brother fought this, even he couldn’t…” He swallowed. His arms trembled for a moment, but then he steeled himself, looking back again. “Where do we even attack from? How…?”
“It’s impossible,” Loren told him. “Run out and it will eat you. On the surface, the soft sand is like an extension of its body. It can feel you move.”
His head snapped to her. “You didn’t mention this earlier,” he said.
“No,” she agreed. “I’m sorry. Look again.” She let him turn.
His face changed when he realized. She could almost hear his thoughts as they raced; his brother had been a strong fire mage, and yet the front of the giant worm was unscathed. But the bandages on Loren’s arm…
She stabbed him then.
The blade slid so cleanly through the back. Erik choked in pain before he could scream, and then he choked on blood, and she let him fall against the mound. He landed with his eyes pinned on her.
Behind them, the giant worm stirred at the movement, but the shift of sand had been too small, muffled by the hill. It didn’t bother to search.
Loren shifted the sword to the arm without the wound, the stretches of skin that his brother had burned. He had been the first person. She’d taken his sword also, but couldn’t fend against the fire. But it didn’t matter; in the end, she had killed him as well.
She crouched and screamed, “Knell, help!” and he came.
A dagger shot to the ground beside the worm, distracting it, and he ran over. The second he got around, the end of her staff descended on his skull.
She pulled the sword from Erik, then sank the blade in his chest. He was already still. Her arms were shaking.
Two more, her thoughts bounced in her head, two more, two more, two more. This has to be enough. She counted to ten and pulled the sword out with an effort. The sand shifted under her stumbling steps, but the Sandworm didn’t move. It was used to being fed now.
“Tell me it’s enough,” she said to it. She stabbed the sword into the ground, heaving, and droplet of sweat slid down her cheek. Her chest felt cold. The monster only slid closer, smooth as a snake. Of course, it wouldn’t respond. “Eat up,” she said.
It rushed forward and swallowed Knell.
“And give me my family back.”
She wiped her face and it came down red. Not even the Sandworm spilled blood when it ate; that was the irony.
Loren kneeled, picking up her staff, but felt another hand pulling at it. She looked up and saw Erik.
Liar, he seemed to mouth. His head was half-sunken into the hill, but one bright amber eye burned at her from the shadows. His lips were parted.
She ripped her staff away. “Eat.”
The giant worm slid up and sucked him in. It tore through the mound of sand like water, tail lashing for a moment as it bulged with one more body. When it stilled, settling to eject, she held her breath and waited.
Two for two. The worm could only hold so much food at once, and inevitably it would be the older ones it spewed out. The other end was so distant, and the sand had stung her eyes, but she could recognize the squeeze and push as a Human body came out. A raw, red hand rolled into sight, a damp sleeve stuck with sand.
Loren ran forward. “Mom?” she asked, calling out. “Dad? Anybody?”
It was neither. It was a face she hadn’t expected.
She rolled the body over and met Erik’s older brother.
He was the first person she’d killed. That had been after her parents were eaten alive. After. He shouldn’t have come out now.
She jerked back, retreating slowly, not daring to ask the question, but for the first time, the Earthworm gave an answer. It shuddered again and spewed out a mass of brown slop.
Her throat closed.
The giant worm moved first, sliding its way back to them, and it swallowed Erik’s brother up again. More slop came out.
She made no sound. Loren only looked up and saw the end.
The demon faced her, and it seemed to growl.
She dropped her staff.
She dropped her cloak.
She dropped the fire crystal into her hand and tossed the pouch away, fingers dripping with water, and immediately it began to heat under the sun. She was crying now.
“Eat me,” Loren said, and put the crystal in her mouth.
This story was guest written by Teowi of Gods are Watching. If you liked this short story vote for it on The top Web Fiction and leave a comment! Check in next week for our last entry, Everybody Dies #8!